Navigating Life After Music School: Spreading the Gift of Music with Kelly Suthers
Kelly Suthers was one of the first people I met when I started working for Sistema Ravinia four years ago. As brass instructors we sometimes taught together. I saw right away that Kelly had a strong passion for helping the students and found joy in spending time with them. Now Kelly is spreading that passion and joy even more in her full time position as the Site Manager for Sistema Ravinia's Lawndale location. Even though I have known Kelly for a few years I learned a lot about her in this interview. I am especially inspired by her motivation to help children discover the gift of music. Kelly is helping to make the world a better place.
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do. KS: I grew up as the “big shot” horn player in Granite Bay, California, about 30 min outside of Sacramento. It was a no brainer that I would go to college for music, and honestly, I wasn’t super great at other subjects in school. I always passed classes and even took some AP’s to try to fit in with the rest of the band crowd, but I was never a natural when it came to test taking. Auditions were a different story. I loved having another chance to prove my ability on the horn, technically and musically. So, I forfeited my second dream of becoming a vet (wasn’t very good at biology/chemistry anyways) and went full on into a BM in Horn Performance at Eastman.
I loved everything about it. Eastman was like a musician’s Disneyland. Of course, there were challenges, but I was still one of the best, so I continued on to a MM of Horn Performance at Northwestern studying with the best of the best, Gail Williams and Jon Boen. Chicago is another ball park when it comes to brass playing. I had the wrong horn. I had the wrong style. I used too much “twa-twa”. But I kept going and got the new horn and fixed the style and articulation.
After graduation, I went on to become a freelancer. I’ll define freelancer very realistically: part time gigging, teaching, and of course, bartending! I did pretty well for myself at the time. 3 years into this new “adult lifestyle” and I felt like something was missing. That’s when I started my search to understand what that was. I noticed at my gigs the same type of audience, the same number of people in the audience, and I noticed how I felt about my students, both privately and in Sistema Ravinia. I realized that I felt so separated from the orchestral audience. I was only giving a small piece of myself to them, my musicality as a section player. This is when I decided to try something new, and I started applying for music administration jobs where I could work directly with children, especially children in need. I start with Merit School of Music and had no luck. But on my second try, I landed a full time job as the Program Coordinator at Midwest Young Artists Conservatory. And I was GOOD at it. All of my years of customer service in restaurants and musical training led me to leave our student’s families happy and the musical program engaging and fulfilling for the students.
Now, I work full time as a Site Manager for Sistema Ravinia Lawndale and the Ravinia Lawndale Family Music School. While the Family Music School has been around for over 20 years, Sistema Ravinia Lawndale is brand spanking new. It has been 10 months since I recruited the students and started our wild ride together for only a short 2 months before moving virtual due to COVID. The kids are what motivate my every move. How can I give them this beautiful gift of music so they want to then share it with someone else? I do believe I was born for this work - no matter how tough it gets and how many reminders I have to send to parents to “sign this permission slip” or “click into this Zoom link at this time but this Zoom link at another time”. It’s worth it.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school? KS: Probably the most important thing I did in my undergrad (and I will admit I lost this quite a bit in my masters) is have confidence and belief in myself. As long as I believed in myself, I could achieve anything. I could win that audition and be the best. It’s a simple concept that becomes more challenging as you grow older and realize “wow - being a musician is actually really tough!”. The other thing I did that, of course, played a huge part in where I am today, was being 100% open to learning new skills and working jobs outside of the music industry. I was a part time usher and worked at a local cafe “Ludwig’s” which sparked my career in the restaurant industry. This skill set gave me WAY more options for work as I grew older. Yay money!
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school? KS: As mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge for me was believing in myself as a performer. When you walk out of auditions thinking “hey that was actually pretty good!” And then they call out the numbers advancing to the next round and, guess what, you lost again - it’s very hard to believe it will ever be possible to live. Oh yeah... probably patience is one of the other hardest things. If I had the patience to practice like I should each day and keep taking auditions.... maybe I would win one! I still think about going back to performing one day... there’s still time!
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up? KS: My biggest disappointment was a few years back. I had 4 professional auditions in 2 months, all for part time local orchestras. I seriously thought “this is it - this is my moment”. Nope! Lost ‘em all. To be honest, I don’t think I ever came back after that in a “performer” capacity. But it did spur me to find my administrator career, and for that, I am very thankful.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed? KS: I used to want to be a studio musician in Hollywood and Disney. How cool would that be?! Then I wanted to win any and all orchestral auditions. Now, I want to build my career in music administration. I want to build it just enough so that I still get to see kids every day and even work with them sometimes, but don’t want to get too far up the ladder to where that isn’t an option. I want to always be “Ms. Kelly”.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful? KS: Ooooohhhh yes. This is important. Make money. Just make money and be an adult and do adult things. Adults still drink and party sometimes, but they also have real life responsibilities. For me, I could not make a living just in music, so I got jobs in the restaurant industry. Because of that I could live in a nice(ish) apartment and save money. Then it was step by step: buy a car, get insurance, get a doggy! These are things that have given me a very fulfilling life and the freedom to go on adventures sometimes and explore new places. So yeah, making money fast and making smart money decisions and doing it all on my own. That was the best thing I could have done and I’ll never regret it. Also, now I know there is no other harder job than serving and bartending in a slammed restaurant on a Friday night. Once you experience that, most other work seems easy!
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career? KS: Making connections with people in musical settings that aren’t always the musicians. For example, who’s the program manager and what’s their favorite spot for lunch in town? Building those relationships will get you far more work than just “being good at your instrument”.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school? KS: Have courage to try new things. Don’t be afraid to work in other fields, it does NOT mean you are a failure or won’t be successful as a performer. You’ve already made it this far.
ER: What is the most rewarding part of your job with Sistema Ravinia? KS: At this very moment, the most rewarding part is seeing kids on Zoom that don’t want to “hang up” after class. I mean, I physically have to put them back in the virtual waiting room because they just want to keep chatting and hanging out. Oh and I also love it when a kid emails me or says “Ms. Kelly?” And has a question. I’m telling you, kids are so sweet and curious and innocent and their questions are always worth your time and energy.
ER: Anything else you want to add? KS: For those of you who may be questioning what to do after school or where to start, you just need to put one foot in front of the other, one at a time. I’m turning 30 in a couple of months, and when I was 22 I thought I’d be married with a kid and have a full time job in an orchestra while teaching at the local university by now (I don’t have those things btw). But who cares? My timeline is my own, and now I realize that that is all that matters. Enjoy and appreciate what you have now, fret less about what you don’t have YET, because it will come.
ER: How can people find you? KS: I guess you could find me on Instagram. I’m trying to be cool and do more there instead of Facebook.
Need some help or any questions? You are always welcome to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I never got around to making my own website.... another thing that I make a conscious decision not to fret about. :)